Sunday 29 May 2011


between body and information

What is the information that shapes design? Our information age has changed how we think about the world and interact with it, but has it also changed how we think about design - how we approach design and perceive it? Our sophisticated portable gadgets - phones, pods and pads - have created a world that has information at our fingertips - literally. These electronic wonders make the 1950 ‘Dick Tracy’-vision of a phone-watch look crude and limited - truly comic - although it is very likely that this guessed gadget has been the inspiration for much of what is so familiar today. Just as many a truth is said in jest, so our comics have frequently framed futures and scenarios yet to be.

It is the fact of futures that they are unknown. Even with the promise of the cliché ‘ten-year’ scientific solution, nothing is certain – well, nothing other than ‘death and taxes’ as the cynic says. While our future remains in much the same visionary vein today as it always has, and remains open to speculation, our present is more certain as ‘today’ – or ‘Now.’ The observation is becoming commonplace: today folk walk down streets paying more attention to their phones, pods and pads than they give to the environment or to others. The image is surreal: man connected to others, (or otherwise: it could just be a game or an image being toyed with), via digital electronics that supercede personal intimacy and all other concerns - indeed, taking over in importance from any physical encounter or recognition. The ‘I and Thou’ relationship that Martin Buber wrote so beautifully about is merely an insignificant aside - perhaps an angry glance - if it is enacted at all by a distracted eye movement.

The situation reminds one of David Green’s prediction of the electronic world becoming the central hearth, a message illustrated in The Electric Aborigine, 1971; and of Coop Himmelbrau’s envisaged White Suit, 1969, where the electronic world is shown as another skin carried on the body, albeit it rather crude by today’s equipment that does have such additions available, e.g. 3D glasses, night vision goggles, and WiFi gadgets. These forty-year-old images can be seen as metaphors predicting our circumstance today. Even with their rough rawness, the intent of the message is clear: (see Architecture as the Everyday, p.p. 199 and 204). Are visions the splash in the water that inevitably sets up ripples that grow with time, expanding inexorably into other eras that are inevitably changed by the stimulus of these distant disturbances? Ivan Illich spoke of change in this manner. Do we create and define our futures today with a subtlety we know little about? The self-conscious efforts to show future possibilities in our time as more than metaphor, e.g. as boldly seen in Disney’s 1950’s House of the Future and in numerous ‘cars of the future,’ all carry a certain irony in their being possible in the present. The completion of the ‘future’ concept in the period ‘Now,’ only fixes this idea and outcome in time, thus ensuring that it has no future other than in stimulating further developments and changes in other directions. If ‘our future can be now’ - a promotional theme sometimes seen on advertisements sponsoring things with so-called ‘futuristic’ identities or even credit cards - then, quite simply, it is not our future, but it may influence it in one way or another, either positively or negatively.

Our world is being intercepted by clever information-seeking tools that are constantly being ‘upgraded’ almost on a monthly basis. Information may take on a variety of shades. All the data is ‘information,’ but it may be for learning, for entertainment, for simple amusement, or just a diversion – or more; or otherwise. Digital accessibility has no definition for the management of its bits and pieces: its bytes and pixels. They, like the themes that the comic books explore, can be used for good or evil. In spite of this, our world has the need for these electronic objects to be ‘designed.’ Here the only brief for the embodiment of the clever or ‘smart’ information-seeking circuits, is that something has to contain it. It may not even have to be a good fit in relation to the size of the electronics. The story about the beautiful hi-tech black box being nearly empty has been repeated frequently. Empty space is irrelevant. This singular and most critical necessity is enclosure and its presentation. This demands that attention be given to a complex set of ephemeral needs involving conceptions, perceptions and expectations. There are other requirements for our portable electronic things too, but these have to do with their relationship to the physical body rather than the mind and emotions. The object has to be capable of being held, manipulated, read by the body, and stored on the body, but these seem to be secondary to the look and feel of the phone/pod/pad.

Industrial design has shaped and moulded many items in our brave new world that have had no precedent, including lights, microwaves, vacuum cleaners, computers, sewing machines, and telephones - and much, much more. It is interesting to note that the Bauhaus was involved in designing objects that had precedents - chairs, tables, rugs, lights.  Its challenge was primarily the use of new materials and new production techniques. The telephone involved both. The classic telephone ‘Model 302’ designed by Henry Dreyfuss in 1937 was shaped in bakelite for the hold of the hand, the ease of the ear, and the fit of the face. It was thought of as something that could be - and had to be - carried and touched, both as parts and in its entirety. The wholeness of the design related to a set of functions involving a primary physical quality that integrated and involved various parts of the body. Interaction with the object entertained a multiplicity of body parts and gestures in space and on varying scales. Yet there is an unusual divergence in our time.

Our p, p, p’s are different. Various materials are used for these new objects that are designed primarily for the hand and the eye – for fine movements. The ergonomics relate to the more delicate scale of fingers, touch and sight, and such insubstantial issues as daylight and brightness, rather than any grand gesture or movement of the whole body in space. Design today takes on the role of an interface between the fine body parts and the information systems it encases. The analogy that sees these things as ‘thinking’ suggests a lack of physical bodily involvement beyond the brain – a certain static immobility as seen modelled in Rodin’s classic sculpture. Design makes the digital world accessible by containing it in a shroud that concerns itself primarily with appearance: size, scale, image and style. It seeks to make the container appeal as a tool that can carry all the innuendo of the future in promises described as better, smaller, faster, with evermore-extreme superlatives being used for the primary cause, which appears to be the creation of a need and a preference - by design.

Taking Amazon’s Kindle as an example, one can see the remarkable development from the first model to the second – a dramatic change from a crude, visually heavy, slate-like platter, (I am thinking of the Grade 1/2 slates that had a substantial wooden frame around the grey stone engraved with lines on the reverse side), to what is more akin to a sheet of paper than anything else. It has a small, knife-edged, light, fine thinness that is almost unbelievable in its presence. It entrances. The eye and the hand are engaged in the pondering of this wonder, as if it was the impossible made present:  the future now. The sheet-of-paper analogy seems to seek a reference to the page of a book that it is trying to replace, suggesting a subtle sense of familiarity in a new object – perhaps an attempt at making it more acceptable to booklovers. While the differences in the appearances of these models are stark, the functions and performances of both are similar. Much the same variations are seen in models of other gadgets, but these are more acute in phones that have been produced over a longer period.

I use an old mobile phone - about ten-years old – that still works as I want it to, but it has none of the slick appearances or performances of the latest versions. I still use my fingers and eyes to manipulate the functions this tool gives me access to in much the same way as I would with a new object, even though the new mobile phone would be much more than a machine for talking. The point is that in both of these examples, the design has attended to matters that have little to do with the functional necessity of the operations involved. The ‘design’ styles these objects in much the same manner as cars are fashioned. Here trends and vogues become involved in forming a shroud for function. Sullivan’s much-abused catchphrase changes into ‘form follows fashion’ as the spruiked requirements of ‘the latest’ – it’s always the latest - technology make demands on outcomes as well as on social expectations that are prompted and propped by the those making and selling these objects. The prospects for the future are determined by those seeking to profit from the product in the same circular manner as a desire for an item is established by advertisements that give results that are then used to prove that the product is a desired or preferred object, thus self-fulfilling its own prophecy. Necessity in the digital world involves the ephemeral visionary possibilities of the electronics and the encompassing style. Functions for the body and its eyes and fingers just have to be somehow incorporated into this forming of a favourable identity – the primary aim. So it is that we see in some units, buttons that are so small that they become a challenge even for the smallest of digits. This is a secondary issue to the image and has been addressed by the development of special tools to allow the unit to be operated.

With Kindle, to continue with the use of this electronic-book gadget as an example, the controls are all slickly enveloped flush in the finely formed frame, made almost invisible by its styling that aims to promote its core qualities: thin, small, slick (read hi-tech), light and readable, all with a ‘book-like’ feel. The design becomes the framework that shapes access to information. The irony here is that what one is given access to - in Kindle - reminds one of books published in the Victorian era. These were black and white and were illustrated with inked etchings and engravings that gave what now looks like a rather schematic, scratchy identity to the images that frequently had much the same character. Kindle is a strange experience where the new invokes the old. Perhaps all early developments have to struggle through similar crude times until they are engulfed by sophistication? Compared to the reading of a book, the experience is Spartan, but who knows what the future may hold? This is science’s great promise for this beautiful thing.

I am reminded here of my attempts to use a rather nicely designed - well, it looked good - coffee machine. To use this minimalist coffee maker one had only to pop a small container into a recess made by moving the lever, pull a lever and press a button: the rest was managed by the machine that was a sleek black form with one outlet; one lever; and one button. Its brevity was astonishing. Other machines have such a diverse arrangement of controls that guidance and training are needed for their operation. This unit sat on a granite bench and displayed a certainty and clarity in its simplicity that suggested the possibilities of a simple and intuitive operation: but I could not get it to work. I checked the cable, the plug, the main switch – but nothing happened. I was unable to discover any other on/off switch on the unit so, in hopeful desperation, I tried everything possible – jiggling the plug; operating the lever slowly; reinserting the insert; pulling the lever with a more determined approach - faster - as if willing the machine to do something; but it still didn’t go. Was there another switch somewhere? Finally I ran my fingers over every surface available until I found the switch tucked away in a shadowed recess at the rear of the base of the unit, all nicely detailed in black to remain out of sight and flush, so as, it seemed, to be able to maintain the uncluttered identity of this appliance. It was apparent that no thought had been given to any new operator unfamiliar with the diagram on the instruction leaflet.

Is this new design approach becoming our model for design in general? These amazing gadgets are becoming such an intimate and central part of ourselves and our lives, they may begin to establish a new paradigm for the way in which we consider design. Are we merely stylists, providing a wrapper for a predetermined set of functions, responding to the calls of futures, fashion and sales? Is our task merely becoming perceived as that of providing a wrapper? The Japanese have always held the idea of the wrapper being just as important as the object being enclosed, arguing that the container had an integral requirement to maintain and promote the contained object’s qualities, even if the concept was just to show that one had cared for these – recognised and respected them. Our wrapping has little to promote or consider other than the guessed futures of electronics that claim to be getting ever faster, smaller, better, clearer and cheaper. Fuller’s ‘ephemeralisation’ seems to be coming into being as more and more digital functions are fully integrated into our objects - disappearing into them - leaving only an assumed style to promote their presence. Was Fuller’s vision the splash that we are still being shaken by? Are today’s splashes themselves becoming more ephemeral so that we can no longer recognise them as significant ideas?

Most of what has been spoken about in this text involves what we call industrial design. The question is: is design in architecture being changed by this digital world and its approach to things? Is design perceived only as an interface between function and body – as a stylistic possibility: one of the ad hoc set of many possible imagined forms? Pick-and-choose? Instead of being seen as a machine for living (for example), has the house become a stylish presentation for performances to be seen by others – to impress? Does it have to be? One sees many houses in the movies, on televisions and in the real estate advertisements that could make one believe that this is so. It is more obvious in commercial buildings that are blatant about their self-promotion. Is this where design is going?

There is a sink available now that is made from a new composite, granite-like material. It is designed by Porsche, and is so marked. It is a Franke product, a European design, created, not by the carmaker, but by F.A. Porsche, the first son of the sportscar company founder, Ferry Porsche. The object has all of the requirements necessary to promote it as a fashionable, unique object with its singular branded style and prestige: to impress. Its cost only adds to its significance in this context. It looks elitist - different. There are certainly many cheaper sinks available in our ‘Crazy Plus’ world of third-world imports that seem to be valued for their low prices alone. In spite of all of these pseudo- impressionable qualities, the Porsche sink is a beautiful thing, not only to look at, but also to use. Its design makes a commitment to understanding and accommodating the ordinary functions of the kitchen in a compact and multifunctional manner. It is a joy to use. The subtlest of simple tasks that arise in the kitchen over the sink have been considered here and attended to, allowing them to be accommodated without effort or display. This modesty belies its branding, and enriches and surprises one as the most simple and complex of tasks are enacted. The sink facilitates body movements and desired outcomes. It has not been ‘styled’ for its own importance, although it has, in one way, been made a beautiful object. Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’ can be seen to be embodied in the experience of its use. The words ‘f f f’ remain as a cliché today, but they do need to be reinvigorated before our entire efforts in design become merely the seeking of stylistic solutions. The ‘f’ words need to have their meanings revived.

Like many quoted phrases, Sullivan’s is always taken out of its context. The words are catchy, carry a phonetic rhythm, and have been popularised beyond meaning and comprehension just as E=mC2 has. They support only preconceptions when left stranded alone in another place as a solitary set of words whose support is often sought for the most alien of outcomes; or, at other times, just to make the spruiker sound important. Sullivan spoke of form following function, and of function following form in a poetic sense far removed from our easy, simplistic and singular understanding today. He spoke, by way of example, of the form of the rose as being the function of the rose; and vice versa. Think about this circumstance - this integral presence of beauty, wonder and necessity that was the inspirational vision of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Leber Meister who used things floral for his wonderful decoration in a manner now alien to our times. Indeed, his decoration finally became alien to his own time and rudely left Sullivan to die a pauper. We must not forget what Sullivan was telling us: that body and feeling are involved in a way that is rich, subtle and vital - that is always more than an adaptation of pure functional aspirations.

Feelings are a part of the whole, but ‘feeling smart’ is alien to this circumstance. We must maintain a constant vigilance in our times to ensure that the hype of what is popularly seen as progress does not pervert our perceptions of what design can be and should be. The attractive dominance of phones, pods, pads, along with an ever-growing number of playthings could very easily highlight only the limited aspect of their shaping – their style and fashion; their easy prestige and self-promotional importance; their greedy ambition for laziness, and change our approach to design: for these things are very attractive and alluring. We should remember that design is not self-centred slickness or a concentration on appearances. It is not puffed up. What Wright called the poet of ancient times spoke of this in another context:
Charity suffereth long, [and] is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,  I Corinthians 13:4
Love is involved but our era forbids this debate, even though it might learn from it. It is merely unfashionable, so it is ignored, sneered at. Yet an envious, vaunting, puffed-up quality seems to touch on things digital and the individual’s public performance with the bold, look-at-me, listen-to-me strides struck down the street while considering no one else or recognising anything otherwise, or to be otherwise. Does the promoted p, p, p design approach and its outocmes promote such a response? Is it inherent in it?

Design has the quality of an interface - of the between - but it is inclusive: it is not just a skin, or skin deep, or merely fashionable. It is not a container or wrapper. It does not decorate to distract, entertain or surprise – or to look pretty or acceptable. It does more than exist as a style between fragile, fancy functions and the body. There is a more necessary - a more essential - quality in design. There is depth and resonance here, and wholeness: integral interrelationships. Design is the object, not just its appearance; design is the body, not just its extension. It holds both between. Design is not just a tool to make things attractive. If roses are too quaint to understand - too sweet and flowery in an exuberantly Victorian manner - consider the leaf: its form and function; its function and form. The science of photosynthesis makes the leaf more accessible to our minds than any understanding of roses as we have been made so logical and rational by our era. It can also open our eyes to its astonishing beauty too.

We should try to ensure that these times do not change expectations of our shaping and making of things – that we do not lose sight of why we need to do more than style and re-style. Then we might be able to retrieve, expose and relate to some of the poetry that our world and ourselves so richly embody – and allow this to change our thinking and acting. Design is not just making something attractive or beautiful, or to benefit sales. It is not something to promote self-importance. It is a core part of our existence that can and should enhance its poetic possibilities. It shows how we can be responsible to and for each other rather than continue to use and abuse anyone for personal gain. Design shares the wonder of ourselves and our world, allowing us to remember our remembrance of things past in the present that always is Now. This is the interface that needs to drive our actions. This is the ‘information’ – the being informed - that we need to attend to. Our gadgets will be of little help here: it is personal, not digital: intimate flesh and blood, not the flash and bleat of remote electronic circuits or their promoters.


“Well, look at that!”
“Yes, it’s a fine red.”
”What do you mean by ‘fine’?”
“I mean that the red is rich; eye-catching; brilliant; rosy; exuberant; that it makes me feel glowing – something like that.”
“Well, why didn’t you say so?”
“I don’t know. I just used ‘fine’ as a conversational summary of these things I suppose. It was merely an attempt to suggest some quality that was special in my experience.”
“‘Fine’ is hardly a useful word. It has more to do with the weather or slenderness in general conversation than being exuberant or rosy.”
“Yes, perhaps whether something is nicely different or not: that’s all I was alluding to. That’s how I was using it. It’s just that it is difficult to express the complexity of feelings involved in an experience.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You just can’t create a new meaning for a word and hope that it will make some sense.”
“I wasn’t being smart. Just chatting, that’s all. I liked it – its rediness.”
“Is that a new word too? I go to the doctor and tell him that I feel sick, for example, or that I feel some pain, and he attends to me. It’s not rocket science. You don’t have to be a Nobel laureate to communicate an experience. It’s just commonsense.”
“When I went to the doctor with a pain I was asked to say more about it.”
”Well, the nurse wanted me to give it a number.”
”Did you give her a number?”
”Well, yes. She asked me to rate the pain from one to ten, with ten being the worst pain I have ever experienced.”
“That seems one way to define it. Quite systematic as a concept – clever.”
“But I couldn’t do it.”
“What do you mean, ‘couldn’t’ – wouldn’t?”
“I found it a very difficult task - impossible. When I reflected on my previous experiences of pain, I discovered that they involved a lot more than some simple understanding of a degree of being hurt or sore.”
“Surely pain is pain, with one hurting more than another, obviously at different times. You should be able to remember the worst of these; to recall and categorise such extreme experiences.”
“No. I started to think about my past: when I cut my finger; when I had a pain in the stomach; when I had an infected fingernail; when I had toothache. These were some of the worst experiences of pain that I could quickly recall while standing there being glared at by the nurse who wanted to complete her form. How was I going to say something that might be useful for a diagnosis as a number?”
“Yes. It sounds that things like that might be some of the worst pains to experience. Even been burnt? So what was the problem?”
”Each pain had different locations in the body; different experiences were involved; different feelings, different contexts and different ages. They were all sensed differently and remembered distinctively too. All of these variations swelled up into my mind when I tried to recall the degree of pain involved, and I was confused. How could numbers relate to these events? How were the ten increments going to be interpreted? And how did I know that I was not more concerned with, say, a head pain than a more intensive stomach pain when I rated something? Experience is never singular.”
“Gosh, I reckon I’d know which was the worst. It’s a pretty easy thing to do with your colleagues. Some are real, well let’s say ‘struggles.’”
“It is really not that easy. The cut involved a warm, instant, ‘sharp’ sliver of a pain that made blood flow. It was strange: I felt it some time after the incident that was further traumatised by the appearance of the blood. The stomach pain was experienced as a broad, slowly-penetrating ache in the body that reverberated through the solar plexus with little variation, just being there constantly. The infected finger was a persistent, heavy and ponderous throbbing pain that seemed to be in synch with the heartbeat. I could expect the next surge and prepare myself for it. The toothache ripped through one side of my face, to end with an ache in my eye and ear with a slow rhythmic pulse that peaked with an ever-higher pitch of pain each time. Each pain had its own unique characteristics. So I was confused.”
“They were all pains. Were you just being difficult? What did you do?”
“They are all pains, yes, but this categorisation is just about as useful to me as my ‘fine’ was for you. I did not even consider the pain of a broken heart. Finally I said ‘five’ to average everything out - to give no commitment either to good or bad; worse or better. That filled the box in and the nurse was happy. She was getting cross with me. She thought I was wasting her time, being belligerent.”
“She never asked for more information about your predicament?”
”Only more numbers – time, ‘GPS’ place, age, and the like. Her health management interests saw ‘five’ was the solution for intensity. The world seems to be happy just to have things quantified, and boxes ticked, no matter how emotionally complex matters are. It just needs numbers, even though you might be very ill. Feelings are meaningless. Explaining these emotions is worse than useless. I’d give the concept of this numerical rating a zero for effectiveness.”
“Get with it, it’s a digital world! You’ve just used it in your assessment.”
“It really makes me see red.”
“That’s fine for you.”
“Well, let’s drink to that – just to cheer you up.”
“Cheers, ready – one, two, three . . . . steady,  . . .”

‘You get cranky about numbers.”
“Yes. Numbers are gaining in significance for architects in a silly way too. Just look at what ‘green’ studies are doing. Everyone is getting starry-eyed about them - about adding up allotted numbers to prove a ‘green’ outcome. It’s like environmental colouring by numbers.”
“Pain is an odd interest for an architect?”
“Experience has a lot to do with things architectural. Pain is useful to highlight the rich complexity of experience that is common to us all. Talking about ‘aesthetic experience’ turns too many heads away - too elitist. Body pain is known to everyone. The body is involved in architecture as more than an object moving in space – to be accommodated in place. Feelings and many subtle matters come into it, but these are difficult to talk about; difficult to quantify and to analyse, like pain itself. Emotions are even rejected by the profession as an ad hoc, personal indulgence: by ‘dull gents’ one might add.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t need an architect to build my house. Just commonsense.”
“That probably explains everything.”
“Never mind. A top up? . . . I’ll just keep seeing red.”
“What do you mean by ‘red’?”
. . . . . .


What do designers think about when preparing product packaging and labelling? The cynics say that the only thing that is of interest to a manufacturer - and therefore, perhaps, the designer - is the right image of the package that will sell more and more of the particular goods being promoted. Issues like how the container looks on the shelf as a collection of ‘products’ standing in the context of the oppositions’ merchandise become important, as well as the more intimate details: the shape of the container; the feel; the colour; the graphics on it; and more. The aim, it seems, is to stand out – to catch attention - and then to reinforce agreeable feelings for the product in the customer perusing the choices available. The messages can be subliminal; some are more obvious.

What caught my eye on the bathroom shelf was an ‘ENE’ product label on the set of shampoo and conditioner packages. The supermarket choice had been made by another, so only at the detail of this brand was being perused. The containers matched, defining this pair as twins. They had a pale cream attractiveness - like vanilla ice cream - with a translucent collar that dipped to expose the edge of a black lid that could be conveniently flipped up by a thumb to reveal the opening from which the shampoo/conditioner could be extruded. It all looked so conveniently possible, even with soapy hands. The translucence of the neck was interesting. Was it to reveal the state, colour and location of the fluids inside? Did it helpfully confirm that something was there and that it was soon to be out? No. This was truly a hollow gesture. The translucence revealed merely its own void as the icing on the cake: the froth on a cappuccino – a visual attraction alone. Yes, the containers looked good and felt good. They were comfortable in the hand with their swelling shaping that fitted the contours of the palm and fingers well. The eye-catching graphics were pleasant too. These continued the swirl theme of the containers’ shape - almost like a swirl of ice cream - in brown hues that complemented the cream and suggested a drip form - soft serve? - wrapping around text that clearly proclaimed the ‘ENE’ brand, its ‘more moisture’ qualities and other properties of these products with diminishing legibility.

The containers appeared identical in form, profile and graphics apart from a couple slight differences. Each was separately labelled in a similar short stripe with rounded ends framing the words ‘SHAMPOO’ or ‘CONDITIONER’ (as appropriate) in letters about four millimetres high. These labels were not a dominant presence in the whole array of images; ‘ene’ declared its pride of place. The background of one stripe was shaded in the complementary brown making the fine pale cream, silhouetted letters difficult to perceive. The other container had the text printed in the same brown on the cream background, making it almost as difficult to read. The only other difference was the labelling of the contents. This took the form of black letters about two millimetres high that formed a fine line below the main graphic. The readability of these tiny shapes was not critical as they formed the names of unknown chemicals that looked difficult, if not impossible to pronounce. The reverse side of both containers had black masses of tinier text – where’s the magnifying glass? - that apparently gave all of the required legal labelling and some explanatory and promotional material using an anonymous graphic style - the compact, almost unreadable layout of  blurb. These are the details that manufacturers never want customers to read. It could be called the ‘reluctant’ text that is usually shaped to look nice as a set of dark blocks.
The differences between these two containers were so subtle that a quick glimpse would not differentiate between the two. It was now that one realised how the designers had been so thoughtfully clever. While the shampoo container stood vertically on a base with the dark lid at the top, the container for the conditioner stood upside down, on its black lid. One thought this was a self-conscious strategy by the way that both graphics were printed to read correctly - and to align perfectly - in this reversed orientation, but this could have been a chancy misprint. The attempt to right the conditioner container, to make it stand upright in the same manner as the shampoo plastic bottle, showed that the designers had intentionally detailed the conditioner bottle to stand on its head. The conditioner container had no base shaped to support it in the upright shampoo fashion. It just fell over with all attempts to match the shampoo’s stature.

It was now that a closer look at the form of this container revealed a very slender remodelling of the shampoo shape. This conditioner container was ever so slightly broader towards the base (now top), and marginally thinner so as to mould the curves of the body into this different rounded bottom-top. So it appeared that the designers have been thinking about the user. To differentiate between the shampoo and the conditioner containers that appeared almost identical, the designers had cleverly inverted the container holding the least viscous fluid, thus indicating the difference between the two and making the conditioner always available for the user – on demand. The frustration with thick fluids, like that experienced with some sauces, is that the container needs to be shaken and thumped repeatedly in order to extract any of the substance, and when it arrives, it usually does so in uncontrolled excess. It is a classic comic scene frequently used in slapstick sketches. It looked as though our designers were doing more than merely promoting a product for sale. They seemed to be thinking of the users.

Well, this was until the product was being used in the shower. Both containers were standing on the floor in their mirror-reversed stances when they were accidentally knocked. With soap and water in the eyes, the challenge became not only to retrieve these containers, but also to identify which was which. Trying to read the text was useless; and this was no time to reflect on the relationship of image to the container. Trying to stand each up to discover the identity was tricky. How could one be sure that the shampoo was not on its head, or that it had fallen yet again just as the conditioner was designed to do, because of any inner-liquid disturbance of its balance, if only temporarily? It became obvious that the designers had not overcome the problem that most of these sets of products have, even with their clever idea of inverting the conditioner. One needed a clear and explicit naming of these packages. Private codes used to solve a problem were simply inadequate.

The graphics, while attractive, proved to be of little use when one looked at them for information through the dripping water and the suds. The clever making of a near-matching set now seemed to benefit only the manufacturer, with customers possibly preferring the prettiness of the twin identity rather than any mismatch in ad hoc brands, therefore purchasing one of each. The thinking that went into the translucent collar seemed to pervade the whole outcome. One was left floundering, cursing the illegible texts and the near-identical twins of these products. Why could these containers not have been simply marked clearly, e.g., with a large  ‘S’ and a large ‘C’? It all looked like an ill-considered design that no one had ever tested or thought through beyond the shelf appearance.

One might note and appreciate that here the designers at least seemed to have tried to make the difference clear; but with the failure of their strategy, the containers were left in the limbo that most of these paired products suffer. Some manufacturers have tried to use different coloured tops, but remembering which is which in the minute of need can lead to the same frustration as that experienced with the inversion. What is required on all of these packages is a bold text or letter that clearly, quickly and unambiguously communicates the message of identity, rather than using a random code that has no particular rigour or role other than highlighting cleverness. Using subtle and smart ideas to indicate the different fluids in very similar containers is not going to be enough. The designers will just have to agree to allow a little more difference in their aesthetic assessments - to show more consideration for the consumer. It is not a difficult thing to resolve. It only means that the preference for the symmetry of identical twins has to go so that the frustration of the experience of using these products in the shower or elsewhere can become a thing of the past. Even if one forgets about the inverted twins falling over, just imagine trying to choose a particular container from the depths of a bathroom bag where stance has no standing.

Design, no matter of what or of what scale or type, must give thought to outcomes - and to unintended outcomes too - if it is not to become a sham. The preconception of prettiness needs to be thrown away in favour of a clear message that is not just ‘buy me.’ Designs can all look good and are able to hold very different, and sometimes contrasting ambitions in these appearances. Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder – it is confirmed in the hands of the user too, for beauty is tainted by any confusion in or problem with the outcome where function is involved. This is the challenge of all design, and of architecture in particular. It is in the most simple of circumstances that the significance of issues can be highlighted - I carry water; I wash my hair:

‘. . . while in architecture you are continually called upon to do what may be unnecessary for the sake of beauty, you are never called upon to do what is inconvenient for the sake of beauty.’
John Ruskin, Lectures on Architecture and Painting, Routledge, London, 1854, p.23: (italics in original).

Saturday 21 May 2011


Stephen Harris and Deborah Berke in Architecture of the Everyday, Princeton Architectural Press, Yale, 1997 have collected a series of writings and images that explore the subject of the title in various ways. Their mutual interest in this idea grew from their conversations during the drive to New Haven from New York City that they shared on a regular basis for nine years. The title is a Kenneth Frampton phrase that was used in his question that was a part of his critique of Venturi and Scott Brown’s ideas: Could an “architecture of the everyday” be constructed on the basis of building forms created by large corporations for consumption by a mass market? (p.89) It is a good question that needs more careful consideration.

One has to realise that there might be something is the concept of the ‘everyday’ when large retailers, banks and others start using the word as a promotional theme for their various products: ‘everyday’ account; ‘everyday’ credit card; ‘everyday’ mobile telephone; etc. The word has almost become so everyday that it is no longer registered or noted as holding any meaning beyond the bland identity of a familiar brand. One has to wonder about this ‘everyday’ usage – whether this devalues the quality of its naivety. The idea was raised as a philosophical concept by Henri Lefebvre, a French philosopher (1901-1991) who was influential in providing the intellectual framework for the 1968 street demonstrations in Paris. Lefebvre lived immediately behind the Pompidou Centre in Paris with the raw giantism of this structure being his immediate neighbour, forming the daily vista for his ‘everyday’ comings and goings. One wonders just what impact this juxtaposition might have had on his life and his ideas.

The various articles in this Harris/Berke publication are interesting as everybody’s ‘everyday’ varies so much. Some pieces read like a student’s submission; others present ordinary experience in an interesting manner; while there are still others that grapple with theory and ideas in a more rigourous way. One of these is Deborah Fausch’s paper titled Ugly and Ordinary: the representation of the everyday, pp. 75 – 106. The title has the form that the late Tom Heath identified as the preferred American academic naming – a sort and snappy set of words followed by a longer explanatory suite. In this text, Fausch, a practising architect who also teaches theory and history, uses Venturi and Scott Brown’s 1976 exhibition Signs of Life as a basis for the analysis the ‘everyday’ in architectural theory and practice – an interesting choice as Venturi and Scott Brown were much intrigued by this subject.

The text is fascinating as it does more than single out this exhibition and its implications for discussion. It places this display in the context of its times, involving Framption, the Smithson’s, Rossi, Rudofsky, Turner, Archigram and other contemporaries in the overview. This not only expands the framework of her thesis, but also defines a short history of the development of ideas during this period. One becomes intrigued because this recent history that remains resonating in the minds of many today, has not yet been reviewed or recorded in any systematic manner (c.f. Banham’s Theory and Design in the First Machine Age) other than in those strides that seek to move away from the concerns of these times. Here issues are documented in order to differentiate new concepts from the old. Fausch does not pretend to be writing a formal history, but her paper does provide a glimpse of an outline of ideas that this era was interested in. A fascinating observation is that many of these concepts have now been absorbed into new theories – not in any obvious manner: they have sublimated to become a ground for another theory in the best Karl Popper manner. Our politicians would blandly describe this notion as a step ‘forward.’

The text ends with a question: The question raised by the work of Venturi and Scott Brown – can the public art of architecture succeed in displaying the ordinary, unmarked events of everyday life in its forms, or can it only accommodate and shelter them? – remains unresolved. (p.106) It is this question that touches the heart of things architectural today. Are these two possibilities outlined in this question indeed two separate matters? Can any event of everyday life be ‘accommodated and sheltered’ in an architecture that does not display qualities of the ‘ordinary’ and ‘unmarked’? Does architecture change the experience of the everyday? How can architecture best accommodate the ‘ordinary’ and ‘unmarked’ – the unremarkable? There is a broader, more subtle question: does even the understanding or naming of the ‘everyday’ bring a self-consciousness - an awareness - that intrudes into its innocence? So how does one do nothing, as this seems to be the proposition being suggested? This is an A. A. Milne / Pooh bear question:

"I like that too," said Christopher Robin, "but what I like doing best is Nothing."
"How do you do Nothing?" asked Pooh, after he had wondered for a long time.
"Well, it's when people call out at you just as you're going off to do it, What are you going to do, Christopher Robin, and you say, Oh, nothing, and then you go and do it."
"Oh, I see," said Pooh.
"This is the sort of thing that we're doing right now."...
from The House at Pooh Corner, Chapter X, by A.A. Milne

Perhaps architecture will benefit by our just ‘going off to do it’ rather than having minds pontificating on procedures and outcomes before any event or action? Fausch quotes Pierre Bourdieu on this issue - Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press (reprint 1977 of 1972), p.80, 109 – (italics in original) on page 78:
Automatic and impersonal, significant without intending to signify, ordinary practices lend themselves to an understanding no less automatic and impersonal . . . [but] in taking up a point of view on the action, withdrawing from it in order to observe it from above and from a distance, [the observer] constitutes practical activity as an object of observation and analysis, a representation.

Fausch has many other interesting and revealing quotes in her text and analysis that should be read by architects, if only to be reminded of what has been, where ideas have come from, where they are now, and how the past - yes, even that far beyond the nineteen seventies/eighties - has its own rich intelligence that should not be forgotten in any rush ‘forward.’ It also might help in making more, more humble.

The text following Fausch’s piece talks about humility as the author narrates the story of her neighbour’s garden on Long Island. Margie Ruddick, a landscape architect and teacher, tells us about Tom’s Garden (pp. 107 – 119) in a piece that has the quality of a fairy tale or fable. It relates beautifully to Fausch’s more theoretical writing by providing an ‘everyday’ tale with a moral. It outlines how everyone’s ‘everyday’ is different, why, and why we need tolerance and humility, and should exercise hospitality. Read it. The essence of a story is ruined in any overview and analysis, especially one so subtle. Like the best fairy tales, it gently suggests a way in which we can manage ourselves - and be changed - without any exuberant and intrusive, self-conscious mannerisms that disrupt intentions and send outcomes askew.

Saturday 7 May 2011


. . . . for John, who asked why no one had.

Brisbane has a new bridge.
On 4 October 2009, the Kurilpa Bridge opened across the Brisbane River in Queensland, Australia. The new greenbridge is a multiple-mast, cable-stay structure based on the principles of tensegrity. It is also the largest tensegrity structure in existence.
This entry in Wikipedia (possibly posted by the designers of the bridge – Cox Rayner Architects / Arup - or the government public relations office, as ‘Wiki’ things usually are) refers to the new bridge over the Brisbane River that again joins the art gallery precinct on the south to the CBD/north side of the river. Perhaps the word ‘bank’ should be added here – south bank/north bank - as it reminds one of London and Paris? The article uses some unusual words to describe this ‘world’s-largest’ configuration of its type that is a new pedestrian link: ‘greenbridge;’ ‘multiple-mast;’ ‘cable-stay;’ and ‘tensegrity.’ These terms make the bold claims for this apparently audacious structure look impressive, while suggesting that it might have a colourful nautical theme to it. Brisbane must be proud to have such an iconic structure on its river. But what do these words mean? What is this new wonder? It exists, but there has been very little discussion on it since its opening beyond journalistic hype and blurb. This last word is interesting. As David Astle noted on Letters and Numbers (SBS TV), ‘blurb’ is a word that was invented early last century to describe the descriptive summaries found on the back cover of books – words that seek to entice one to purchase the book. It remains a word that we use today to cover a similar sense of text that babbles on self-consciously in a hyper-promotional, self-interested manner: like much of the journalism in our media.

‘Greenbridge’ can be assumed to be a fabrication used to describe something environmentally positive – or that seeks to be seen as such. In this context one can guess that it has to do with walking and cycling rather than driving, and perhaps to some efficiencies in the making. But what is tensegrity? This word is more obscure and its deconstruction is not so obvious. Buckminister Fuller fashioned this word to describe his idea of creating structures using members with only pure compression or pure tension. These structures were preloaded or prestressed tensionally – intentionally - with the cables always maintaining their rigid tautness, forming a system that was mechanically stable. All elements in the assembly remain in pure tension or pure compression even as stresses on the structure are increased. This design concept meant that no member in the system would experience a bending moment requiring an increase in size to cope with these added stresses. Fuller was interested in these structures because they produced exceptionally rigid structures for their mass and for the cross section of the components. Harvard physician and scientist Donald E. Ingber explains (in Wikipedia):
The tension-bearing members in these structures - whether Fuller's domes or Snelson's sculptures - map out the shortest paths between adjacent members (and are therefore, by definition, arranged geodesically) Tensional forces naturally transmit themselves over the shortest distance between two points, so the members of a tensegrity structure are precisely positioned to best withstand stress. For this reason, tensegrity structures offer a maximum amount of strength.

A different word is again used in this explanation – ‘geodesically.’ It is yet another word - one of many - coined by Fuller. His ‘synergy’ is the one most abused, usually by bureaucrats and managers who seek to sound important when saying very little about anything significant. ‘Geodesic’ has similarly become a part of our general language and understanding of things like different domes, even if few know exactly what the term really involves. Its explanation in this text leaves one with the impression that the Kurilpa Bridge is a crisp and efficient, light-weight assemblage that might prance effortlessly across this River City’s serpentine waterway with a supreme elegance and astonishing wonder.

Fuller’s own simple diagrammatic models used to explain tensegrity are indeed as beautiful as crystals with their intense rigour and efficiency of organised internal relationships and stresses – simply exquisite. The basic models of tensegrity made during one’s student years for class experiments come to mind. There was always a surprise at how a shambles of a few pieces of dowel, some pins and a short length of nylon fishing line could make such surprisingly complex and elegant mathematical forms after a bit of fiddling. This was indeed a marvellous manner to make things minimally – efficient, lightweight and mystically beautiful beyond words. The images that accompany the Wikipedia explanation quoted above show, by way of example, refined and elegant structures with geometric forms shaped by floating, visually disconnected struts held magically in a web of fine tension – effortless weightlessness, as astonishing and intriguing as a hummingbird’s hovering.

In the 1951 Festival of Britain, tensegrity was used to provide the avant-garde sculptural Skylon Tower centrepiece to highlight the possibilities for a bright, post-war future for this country. It was the morale-booster for a saddened, tired people. Fifty-eight years later, this structural concept appears in Brisbane as a bridge to highlight the cleverness of this sunshine capital, of what the Government promotes as ‘The Smart State’ – Queensland, Australia.

The characteristics of tensegrity structures that can be seen in these examples are, sadly, not readily revealed in Kurilpa Bridge. The bridge has no obvious weightlessness; the achievement seems to have required far too much effort; and the size and number of members have a quality that is difficult to read as a rigorously refined and minimal outcome for any organisation of pure stresses. It appears to be overdone. Is this why others have not made such structures? The bridge displays little of the organised clarity exhibited in the models or the 1951 sculpture. Its appearance lacks what reads as a certain precision and wonder in these examples. It has what can be seen as a heavy, over-busy presence that confuses the eye and brain, and allows the wandering mind to give rise to a variety of strange interpretations instead of being otherwise engaged in pondering the surprises of internal necessities.

Some see Kurilpa’s complexity of crisscross struts and zigzagging cables as being somewhat like the masts and rigging of a sailing ship, expanding the idea of the previously suggested nautical theme in the description ‘multiple-mast.’ Some see it as a brash and unusually cheeky, spiky form that reminds them of a Mohawk haircut, complete with its linear symmetry. Some choose to talk about it as a random arrangement of ‘pick-up-sticks’ falling - or knitting needles - but with the distinctive colours of the game pieces missing. This is a grey structure where green is used metaphorically - in its cliché mode. Others commenting on the bridge simply struggle to identify any analogous relationship but say safely – lazily- without any commitment, that the bridge is ‘interesting’ and is liked; or, with equal emphasis and lack of dedication, disliked, depending on the point of view taken or perhaps the tolerance or safe manners chosen to be displayed at the time. Some say things that are best not recorded.

It is difficult to see this bridge as a crisp, crystalline form made with refined minimal structural elements as might be expected of things using the principles of tensegrity. Indeed, some have said that the struts look too fat - awkward and too numerous - and that the rigging is too messy - randomly muddled and chaotic; that the bridge looks grossly over-designed. Surely not? It was expensive, but why would any extra or over-sized elements be included? One is left wondering why these comments arise. Is a bridge a natural tensegrity structure? Is a tensegrity structure naturally a bridge? Perhaps the problem lies here? Tensegrity may be better for domes and sculptures – for spanning - enclosure - without having to accommodate loads of horizontal, linear traffic, be these from pedestrian or vehicular movements.

Bridges link – they ‘go between;’ they span. It is their necessity. So it is that one wonders why the new vehicular traffic bridge nearby upstream has been called the ‘Go Between Bridge,’ even if it refers to a local rock band of another era. It all sounds like an overstated understatement of the very obvious. The success of bridges depends not only on their name, appearance or style, but also on what they join. Unfortunately, the Kurilpa Bridge starts at the crowded, freeway-obstructed end of Tank Street, in an area of Brisbane remote from the CBD and distant from any density of necessary pedestrian movement or thoroughfare. It is the ‘backwater’ of central Brisbane. The bridge lands on the other side of the river in front of the new Gallery of Modern Art complex, (GOMA – ‘Modern Art Gallery’ would have given a less catchy ‘MAG’), but with an awkward detour that looks like a large circular corkscrew ramp reaching and stretching only because it has to. This extended path delivers one down to the edge of the river that has just been crossed when walking from the city-side. The worry here is that the bridge links little that has any civic necessity. It is just there bridging from what looks like a randomly chosen point A to another location, B on the opposite bank, the only determinants seeming to be that the bridging can be achieved in this vicinity. There is no obvious civic enhancement here; nothing essential that is connected by this new bridge that is promoted as using the principles of tensegrity - at a ‘world’s-largest’ scale - as if this outcome alone might be the ambition of this exercise: an exhibition of a structural possibility.

London has a new bridge too - The Millennium Bridge. It is the first new bridge across the river Thames in London since Tower Bridge opened in 1894. Like Brisbane’s, it is a pedestrian bridge and would probably also seek ‘green’ credentials. It was designed by Foster + Associates in collaboration with the sculptor, Anthony Caro and structural engineers Arup, the same engineering firm that was involved in the Kurilpa Bridge. This engineering firm investigated and solved the well-publicised problem that the Millennium Bridge encountered – it swayed more than anticipated with cumulative pedestrian movement. Unlike chooks on a perch that can stabilize the swinging movement of their suspension, the movement generated by pedestrian corrections seeking to counter the swaying and to stabilize bodies, only enhanced the structure’s movements. Special buffers were detailed and installed under the bridge to overcome the problem with another piece of subtle engineering by the bridge’s designers. The bridge opened initially on Saturday 10th June 2001, but in order to fully investigate and resolve the swaying issue, the decision was taken to close the bridge on 12th June 2001. After the extensive investigations and corrective work, it was re-opened on 27th February 2002.

There are similarities and differences with Brisbane’s bridge. London’s bridge is held up by tension and lies on a direct axis with St. Pauls – London’s great landmark (well, one of them), linking the City of London near St Paul's Cathedral with the Tate Modern art gallery on Bankside. Kurilpa Bridge uses tension in tensegrity and links the city-side of Brisbane to the art gallery precinct for pedestrians too. The Millennium Bridge stretches from a small, undistinguished pedestrian precinct that meanders through to St. Pauls and, at Bankside on the opposite side of the Thames, splits and comes to an unexpected end in front of Tate Modern’s side wall where the mirrored ramps return to take one back on axis down to the river’s edge. This abrupt termination is somewhat similar to that of the Brisbane bridge. Kurilpa Bridge comes to a point where one is directed off the bridge down a large curved ramp to reach the riverbank below. The explanation for the Millennium Bridge’s abrupt cessation and reversal of pedestrian movement is that here the designers have cleverly redirected pedestrians to look back at St. Pauls. The experience seems to suggest that the reason may have more to do with overcoming an awkward transition defined by some requirement involving levels and structure than anything else, as it does with Brisbane’s bridge. Both bridges feel as though they should be otherwise, perhaps by leading more directly to a predetermined civic location that would allow a less self-conscious and more effortless transition to the art galleries. There seems to be no ‘arty’ explanation for the Brisbane bridge detour – but it may be coming.

Where London’s bridge has a critical necessity in its marvellous location, Brisbane’s seems to have an unresolved anxiety. The Millennium Bridge is anchored with its St. Pauls’ axial precision that overcomes the perceived weakness of the Bankside termination. Brisbane’s bridge seems to have ignored any similar essential placement. Why did it not land between the library and gallery of modern art where it might have gathered location and function together nicely into a civic space that both welcomed and connected city place? Why did it not link with a more vital part of Brisbane’s city side? Maybe it aims to revitalise this rather backward-feeling, uninviting area that holds a sense of being somewhat derelict, lacking in civic energy – shaped, as it feels, by a collection of relics that might be replaced, refurbished or revitalised in the future. How? When?

There is another critical difference in these bridges. Foster wanted the pedestrian to have the benefit of no superstructure interfering with the pedestrians’ enjoyment of the river and the aspects of the city. And it works marvellously – the pedestrian floats over the river, high in open space that might scare the agoraphobics, with the low, tension cables stretching out from the bold ‘Y’ base supports forming the foundation for the huge void of vistas for all to enjoy. In Brisbane, one is again high above the river, but has what looks like a surplus of structure and weight held, looming ominously above and leaning unusually on each side. Here, with a closer inspection of the detail, the sailing ship analogy is tested to the limits. Memories of sailing boats are recalled as an organisation of finer elements with what looks like a more rigorous arrangement of functioning parts and careful connections. Cables never crisscross so much in a ship without one being able to read their sense of having to be there. Their necessary logic and essential patterning becomes self-evident. Here, puzzlingly, tensegrity does not seem to have the readily understood logic that Fuller’s examples display. Is this why it seems ‘messy’? What would Fuller make of this? His examples are so rigorously specific and crystal-clear in their organisation that one has to ask the question. The eye seeks to trace the stresses of this structure that sometimes seem to be those of a familiar suspension bridge - but more unusually complex, while at other times they do fit a pattern that has a quality similar to traditional tensegrity images. Is this bridge a mix of both systems because of the requirements of the bridging functions imposed on tensegrity?

One’s sense of appreciation is challenged by the bridge’s platform. How does the platform fit into the resolution of tensegrity principles? Does it divide the natural stresses in these forms to give a right and a left scaffold, like that in a traditionally-framed bridge? Is this deck in compression or tension – or is it just being held up? How? By what? Is it free of bending moments? What is its role in the philosophy of things geodesic? It becomes a puzzle when, at places, a compressive element seems to be standing on it, or supported by this planar element when we know it cannot or perhaps, should not be so. It is here that the image of the traditional suspension structure appears, leaving one to ask if things might have been more minimal and efficient had this structural system been employed without the added challenges and complications of tensegrity. The lower ends of the compression struts that appear to rest on the deck have cables supporting these extremities that look as though they could support the platform without many of the members above. Has the effort - the commitment - to use tensegrity been so great as to overcome the consideration of the benefits of any possible alternative structural systems?

From the distance the long plank of the pedestrian path looks like a smart, high-tech aerofoil that somehow slots into the equally potentially-slick elements of tensegrity as a sophisticated part of the whole. But as one is swept below the bridge onto the southern bank, it becomes clear that the platform is framed traditionally with fairly basic steel detailing that has an added set of curved forms planted on to each side to provide an illusion of aerofoil elegance, leaving one feeling a little cheated by this charade in much the same manner as one feels on reading the ‘tensegrity’ elements of this bridge, knowing what elegance and refinement geodesic principles can make possible.

The words ‘clumsy’ and ‘awkward’ come to mind. Why? How is it than the wonder of tensegrity seems to become a little disabled or confused here? Is it that tensegrity principles have been used in this bridge, but only in part? Can one identify the pure tension and pure compression in this scheme without any detailed description or analysis? Unfortunately it looks as though this admirable effort has become just too much of a struggle to achieve without compromise. One must admire the determination, but is left perplexed by the question: why were the potential problems and awkward complexities not addressed during the design stage by changing tack rather than merely beavering on with the aim to achieve a world first? – for, sadly, this is what appears to have happened. Instead of adding to Queensland’s effort to be the ‘Smart State,’ the bridge exhibits an uncertainty of resolution – what looks like a less-than-smart mix of elements seeking to be promoted as Fuller’s dream of an exceptionally rigid and efficient, elegant, light-weight structure using members with a minimal mass and cross-sectional efficacy. The possibility was of an assembly of components that could be really ‘green’ in every way beyond and including colour. This bridge seems to lie in a truly grey area both in relation to any purity of concept and to its simple hue. Sadly, it fails to address the possibilities of colour, and like our other pedestrian bridge – oddly-named ‘Goodwill’ (because most bridges promote goodwill) –  fails to explore how colour can transform and enliven elements; how colour can add life and spirit to even the proverbial grey of the battleship. Here one brings to mind the marvellous dazzle camouflage created for the World War 1 allied ships by the Vorticist group of artists established by Wyndham Lewis and others – one of the few joys that war has ever brought to our world. One is just left imagining how a strategy to use colour and an assemblage of pure geodesic stresses might have danced between necessities to become Brisbane’s different Kurilpa Bridge. But is this an impossible dream? Was it?

A word similar to those coined by Buckminster Fuller now comes into play. It is Carl Jung’s ‘synchronicity.’ Wikipedia explains the concept as:
the experience of two or more events, that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner. The concept of synchronicity was first described by Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung in the 1920s.
A few days after completing this piece on bridges with these questions, a copy of Martin Pawley’s Design Heroes: Buckminister Fuller published by Grafton, London, 1992, was discovered in a second-hand bookshop in Inverell. A quick perusal of the pages revealed some interesting comments, as if to clarify the terminal doubts. Martin Pawley writes:
Unlike the early masterpieces of his architect contemporaries Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe and others, Buckminster Fuller’s designs – the Dymaxion House, the Dymaxion Deployment Unit, the Wichita House, the geodesic and tensegrity domes, and the giant projects of the 1960s – were all steps towards the ephemeralization, or rendering insignificant, of the problem of shelter, rather than works of architecture. In this sense they were simply tools, but in another sense they transcended the timescale of mere usefulness and attained another scale of value altogether. Today they are in a literal sense anachronisms – timeless achievements in an age of continuous technical development that ruthlessly gives a shelf-life to even its finest manufactures. (p.172)

Is Kurilpa Bridge an anachronism? It may be. Fuller’s aspiration was described in his concept of ‘ephemeralization’ –
‘the process . . . whereby doing more for less can lead to an implosion of functions, one into another, until only a gossamer thin but steely strong multifunctional envelope takes the place of separate ‘cultures’ of architecture, building and aesthetics.’ (p.152)
Over fifty years have passed and Kurilpa Bridge seems to have made little development with this integral theme of Fuller’s amazing ‘Dymaxion’ world. One might assume the vision is just a far-fetched dream and dismiss it, but there remains a more blatant, latent irony in this tensegrity bridge. Pawley notes of Buckminster Fuller:
His purpose in creating this structural system (tensegrity) was, he (Fuller) wrote in the lucid language of the patent application, ‘to bring the slenderness, lightness and strength of the suspension bridge cable into the realm previously dominated by the compression column of building.’ (p.148)
A new question arises: why, given what looks like the ad hoc patterning of a less-than-refined outcome, has the concept of ‘tensegrity’ been used to supplant the elegance of its inspiration - ‘suspension’ - in Brisbane’s new crossing? The more gracious possibilities of suspension can be seen in London’s new bridge. What has happened in Brisbane – in the ‘Smart State’? Is the tensegrity claim overstretched?

NOTE: 14 September 2016

For more on architecturally designed bridges, see: Exploding the Myths of Modern Architecture by Malcolm Millais, published by Francis Lincoln Limited, London, 2009: Chapter 11 - BRIDGES BECOME SILLY.

22 February 2014 - see: